Offseason Checklist for Cardinals to Rebound After Heartbreaking NLCS Collapse

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 24, 2012

Offseason Checklist for Cardinals to Rebound After Heartbreaking NLCS Collapse

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    The 2012 St. Louis Cardinals appeared to be powered by the exact same power source that drove the 2011 club to an improbable championship. All they needed was one more win in the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants, and they would find themselves back in the World Series with a chance to defend their title.

    But it was not to be. St. Louis' power source finally ran out of juice in Game 5 of the series. Once it did, all the Giants had to do was mop up.

    The 2012 Cardinals may not have been able to match the accomplishments of the 2011 club, but the bright side is that this year's club is not in the same boat in terms of what must be done during the offseason.

    General manager John Mozeliak doesn't have to worry about replacing a legendary manager or re-signing a legendary slugger, which means he may actually get to rest this winter.

    Mozeliak's list of priorities for this offseason is actually quite short. The Cardinals don't need to transition into a new era. They just need to do what they can to make sure the team they have doesn't meet with the same end as the 2012 club at the end of it all in 2013.

    Here's a look at the Cardinals' offseason checklist.

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

1. Let Lance Berkman Walk

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    Lance Berkman is one of the best free-agent signings in recent memory. The Cardinals picked him up for $8 million in 2011, and he went on to post a .959 OPS and then contributed a huge hit in Game 6 of the World Series that helped the Cardinals stay alive when they looked like they were dead.

    Bringing Berkman back in 2012, however, didn't work out so well. He was limited to only 32 games, and he was too hurt to play when the postseason rolled around.

    Not that the Cardinals missed Berkman that much. They still managed to lead all of baseball in on-base percentage, and they finished second among National League clubs in runs scored. It would have been nice to have his switch-hitting bat in their lineup, but the Cardinals got along fine without it.

    It sounds like the Cardinals are preparing to get along just fine without Berkman in the near and distant future as well. The word from Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com is that Berkman is not expected to be back in St. Louis in 2013, and he's indicated that he may not be back with any team next season.

    "I don't want to rule anything out. But if you asked me right now I'm leaning toward not playing next year," said Berkman back in August to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    Berkman has changed his tune a little bit more recently, telling Langosch that he's still weighing what he wants to do. He noted that there's not a doubt in his mind that he could be a good player if he does decide to come back.

    As such, there's a slight chance that Berkman will be back in St. Louis next season, as the Cardinals could bring him back aboard as a power threat off the bench and occasional starter at first base.

    A "slight" chance in this case, though, would be something like one in 100, or at least one in 50. Berkman's days in a Cardinals uniform are probably over.

2. Let Kyle Lohse Walk

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    The good news is that the Cardinals only have two pending free agents to worry about this year, with Berkman being one of them.

    The not-so-good news is that the other, veteran right-hander Kyle Lohse, was their best starting pitcher in 2012. After going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA, Lohse is going to want plenty of money regardless of where he ends up.

    The Cardinals are sure to at least do their due diligence on Lohse, who has been with the club since 2008, but it wouldn't be a shock if they didn't even go so far as to make him an offer to come back.

    Nor should they. Based on his career track record, Lohse was a little too good in 2012. The last thing the Cardinals want to do is pay him a ton of money based on one great season. They should let some other club make that mistake.

    And some other club probably will make that mistake. Earlier in October, ESPN's Buster Olney wrote in an Insider post that Lohse's contract could be worth as much as $75 million. He stands to benefit from a very weak starting pitching market.

    One could see the Cardinals paying Lohse that kind of money if they had a desperate need for starting pitching, but they really don't.

    They know that they're going to be returning Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in 2013, and they'll be joined by a bevy of rotation options that includes Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller.

    This doesn't mean that the Cardinals won't be trolling the free-agent market for a starting pitcher this winter. It just means they have little incentive to dish out tens of millions of dollars to a guy who would probably open the 2013 season as their No. 3 starter.

    The Cardinals can find one of those for much cheaper. Such as...

3. Go Shopping for a Bargain Starting Pitcher

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    The Cardinals know they're going to have good quantity when it comes to their starting rotation in 2013. Barring a trade, they're set to have at least seven guys for five spots when spring training rolls around. A lot of teams out there would love to have that much pitching.

    Assuming the Cardinals do let Lohse walk, though, there's no denying that they'll losing a dependable starter. He may have overachieved in 2012, but he did top 180 innings for the second straight year and for the third time in the last five years.

    As for the starters St. Louis is set to return, there is some concern in the dependability department. You never know with Chris Carpenter's health. Jaime Garcia will be coming off a shoulder injury. Jake Westbrook is prone to both health issues and inconsistency. Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller are all young pitchers.

    It wouldn't hurt if the Cardinals went out and replaced Lohse with another dependable starting pitcher from the free-agent market, preferably with similar capabilities who can be had a lot cheaper.

    One guy who comes immediately to mind is Ryan Dempster, who would probably welcome a return to the NL Central after struggling with the Texas Rangers in the final two months of the regular season. Combine those struggles with his semi-advanced age, and he shouldn't be too expensive.

    The Cardinals could also pursue a reunion with Dan Haren, who Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times says is going to have his $15.5 million option declined by the Los Angeles Angels.

    Despite being plagued by back problems in 2012, Haren still managed to give the Angels 30 starts and 176 innings. He would be a great fit for the Cardinals' general pitching philosophy.

    Other pitchers the Cardinals could go after are Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Blanton, Brandon McCarthy and Shaun Marcum. They're several of many middle-of-the-road starters who will be available on the free-agent market this year.

    Other teams would prefer better options, but a middle-of-the-road starter is all the Cardinals really need in order to shore up their chances for 2013.

    They also don't have much work to do in terms of shoring up their bullpen...

4. Go Shopping for a Left-Handed Reliever

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    The Cardinals only had one lefty reliever they could depend on in 2012, and they really couldn't depend on him all that much.

    Marc Rzepczynski did not have a good season. He posted a 4.24 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP, and he wasn't that much better against lefties than he was against righties. Righties had their way with "Scrabble" to the tune of a .781 OPS, and lefties compiled a .682 OPS against him.

    The Cardinals can do better. And fortunately for them, there will be some quality left-handed relievers out on the free-agent market this year.

    Perhaps the best of the bunch is Randy Choate, who held lefty hitters to a .461 OPS in 2012. The Cardinals could also go after J.P. Howell, who held lefty hitters to a .612 OPS.

    If the Cardinals would prefer to sign a lefty with a little more versatility, they could try to lure Jeremy Affeldt away from the San Francisco Giants. He held lefties to a .621 OPS and righties to a .656 OPS this season.

    There will be plenty of options on the trade market as well, so there will be no excuses for Mozeliak not to address the club's need for a lefty reliever this offseason.

    If he adds a starting pitcher and a left-handed reliever, the Cardinals' checklist will be down to mere in-house dilemmas.

5. Unscramble Middle-Infield Situation

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    In the NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals' middle infielders were both heroes. Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma came up with the big hits in the ninth inning that gave the Cardinals a win in Game 5 of the series.

    In the NLCS against the Giants, however, both Descalso and Kozma became goats. Neither of them did any damage at the plate, and they had their problems on defense as well. Kozma, in particular, looked like he had no business being a professional shortstop.

    The Cardinals may be able to use both Kozma and Descalso off the bench in 2013 or as trade bait in spring training if things go according to plan.

    Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that Rafael Furcal is expected to avoid surgery on his wounded right elbow, meaning he could be good to go in spring training. He could open the 2013 season as the Cardinals' starting shortstop once again.

    Matt Carpenter, meanwhile, is supposedly going to spend the offseason honing his skills at second base. If he manages to get the position down well enough to play it on a regular basis, Mike Matheny is going to have an excuse to insert Carpenter into his lineup day after day.

    And that's precisely what Matheny wants after the season Carpenter just had. He only played on a part-time basis, but he still managed to post an .828 OPS with six homers and 46 RBI.

    Having Carpenter in the lineup on an everyday basis would also help because he's a lefty hitter with some power. The Cardinals could use one of those.

    Speaking of which...

6. Consider Adding More Left-Handed Power

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    The Cardinals were a very good offensive team in 2012, but consistency wasn't exactly their strong suit. They could look unbeatable for a few days, and then they would suddenly look like the most inept offensive team in baseball for a few days.

    This tendency bit them at the worst possible time in the NLCS, as the Cardinals only managed to score one run in the final three games of the series.

    There's more than one explanation for the occasional slumps that the Cardinals' offense went through. One is that their lineup was a little too right-handed. 

    Towards the end of the season and in the playoffs, Matheny went with a lineup that featured four consecutive right-handed hitters smack in the middle of everything: Matt Holliday hit third, Allen Craig hit fourth, Yadier Molina hit fifth and David Freese hit sixth.

    Things were generally fine when Rafael Furcal was healthy, as Matheny could break up his righties by using Carlos Beltran in the cleanup spot. Even then, though, the Cardinals tended to have a harder time against right-handed pitchers than they did against left-handed pitchers. They ended up posting a .787 OPS against lefties, and a .747 OPS against righties.

    Some additional left-handed thump would be ideal. Adam LaRoche, for example, would fit well in the Cardinals' lineup at first base if he ends up hitting the free-agent market.

    Going after LaRoche or any other lefty power hitter would obviously require the Cardinals to make some space, but that wouldn't be too much of an issue for a general manager as resourceful as Mozeliak. He could, for example, consider dealing either David Freese or Allen Craig.

    One's natural impulse may be to cry out for Freese and Craig to stay in St. Louis, but both of them should be considered expendable because they both have trade value and because they both have limited ceilings. Craig is basically a man without a position, and Freese's health and production at the plate are both inconsistent.

    Just throwing it out there.

7. No Witch Hunt

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    The last point I want to make is one that probably doesn't need to be made, but I figure I'll make it anyway.

    If it was the New York Yankees who had blown a 3-1 series lead against the Giants, we'd probably be sitting here talking about whose heads were doomed to roll this winter. Indeed, this is a topic of discussion even after the Yankees got swept in a series they were never going to win in the first place.

    The Cardinals are not in the same boat as the Yankees. There's no need for them to hit the panic button.

    Even if, you know, some people out there want them to. There was a ton of criticism of first-year manager Mike Matheny floating around during the regular season, and the criticism only intensified once it became apparent that the Cardinals were going to blow their shot to go to the World Series.

    Much of the criticism that was directed at Matheny this season and in the playoffs was justified. He made a lot of rookie mistakes, and it's worth noting that the Cardinals finished the season with 88 wins when various statistics said they should have finished with 93 wins. The differential can, in part, be chalked up to Matheny's decisions.

    But he deserves to be cut some slack. His team came within one win of going to the World Series, which is pretty good for a rookie manager who had the added difficulty of taking over for a legend who had just won the World Series the year before.

    There's no chance of Matheny getting the ax, nor should there be. For that matter, his entire coaching staff can stay too.

    They'll be back, and so will the Cardinals. As it seemingly always is, their future is bright.

     

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